The Great What If?

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Ever since Cliff Lee decided to return to Philadelphia this offseason, the Yankees’ rotation has been a “figure it out as we go” situation. Sergio Mitre was given a shot to win a job in Spring Training. Bartolo Colon was a total shot in the dark based on Tony Pena’s winter ball recommendation. Freddy Garcia was the last girl left at the bar. Kevin Millwood and Carlos Silva came and went. Someone named Brian Gordon even made two starts. It’s kinda remarkable that the Yankees have the sixth best ERA (3.68) and FIP (3.85) in the AL after all of that.

Despite that surprising success, the team is still on the lookout for a bonafide number two starter before Sunday’s trade deadline. So far we’ve heard about guys like Francisco Liriano, Hiroki Kuroda, Ubaldo Jimenez, Gio Gonzalez … you name it and the Yankees have/had interest in them. Here’s the question no one really wants to see to answer though: what happens if they don’t make a trade for a number two starter before the deadline?

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It’s not often that you an take a pitcher and his production for granted, but CC Sabathia is a given. We know he’s going to make 34 or 35 starts. We know he’s going to keep the Yankees in the game every time out and we know that more often than not, he’ll do much more than that. We know he’ll be there to end losing streaks and extend winning streaks, and be ready to take the ball in Game One of any potential playoff series. I don’t like to think of it as taking Sabathia for granted, but that’s kinda what we’re doing. The rest of the rotation though, that’s where the questions arise.

In terms of raw production, Colon has been the team’s number two starter this year. Just check out some of the peripherals…

Colon: 7.96 K/9 … 2.34 BB/9 … 46.4% grounders
Sabathia: 7.91 K/9 … 2.34 BB/9 … 48.0% grounders

They’re the same pitcher in terms of strikeouts, walks, and grounders, almost exactly. Sabathia is better at preventing the long ball (4.2% HR/FB vs. 10.1%) and is far more durable, but the underlying performance is similar. Bart is already in uncharted territory, however. He’s thrown more innings this year than any year since 2005, and since that Cy Young winning season he’s made a total of four starts after today’s date, July 26th. The concern is that Bart won’t hold up not just the rest of the season, but deep into the playoffs. I’m not necessarily talking about breaking down, just running out of gas. Plain old fatigue. The fastball might go from 93-94 to 90-91, the two-seamer might lose some movement, 80+ pitches might become a chore, that kind of stuff happens. That’s why the DL stint may have been a blessing in disguise, maybe it extended his effectiveness for another two or three or six weeks. Who knows?

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Sweaty Freddy doesn’t have the same sexy peripherals as Colon and Sabathia, but he’s actually third on the team in FIP (3.65) and innings (111.2). Last night’s game was a classic example of what he can do; plow through a bad lineup with a slow, slower, slowest approach and generates more ugly swings than anyone else on the staff. It’s kind of fun to watch, actually, at least when he’s on. Garcia did throw over 150 IP last year, so there isn’t much of a concern about him holding up through September. It’s just a question about his effectiveness with a repertoire befit of a slow-pitch softball league.

As strange as this sounds after all the debate we had during the 2008-2009 offseason, A.J. Burnett has been a bonafide workhorse for the Yankees. He hasn’t missed a start all year and has completed at least five innings every time out. That has value. Yeah, his performance is erratic, but overall he’s been a low-4.00’s ERA guy with peripherals that suggest he should be a little better (3.97 xFIP) or a little worse (4.68 FIP). The important thing is that he’s not a complete disaster like last year, where he was ineffective and out of games early. At least now he’s giving them a chance.

The last spot in the rotation is far from settled. Something clearly is not right with Phil Hughes, whose fastball velocity is down from last year even after this season’s DL trip. The new grip curveball is better but it’s still not much of a swing and miss offering, and both the changeup and cutter look like they belong to a kid in rookie ball. His entire arsenal dropped a grade, if not more. Maybe letting him thrown 80.1 more innings in 2010 than he did in 2009 wasn’t such a great idea after all.

Ivan Nova was solid in the first half but has been romanticized into an ace since going to Triple-A. That isn’t the case. He’ll come up to start one of two games this Saturday against the Orioles, give up maybe three or four runs in five or six or maybe even seven innings (it is the Orioles, after all), and then people will remember what he is. Nova can’t miss bats (5.01 K/9 and 5.2% swings and misses) and isn’t the greatest at limiting walks (3.63 BB/9), so he survives on his ground ball rate (55.3%). He’s a fine back of the rotation option, counting on him for more would be pretty foolish. Adam Warren was being prepared to start one of those Saturday games if Nova’s ankle didn’t heal up in time, and David Phelps was also considered for a spot start earlier this year. I’m sure D.J. Mitchell will get consideration as well. That’s the extent of the team’s pitching depth, which is what they’ll have to go to battle with the rest of the season if a trade is not made.

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That patchwork rotation sounds scary, but we can make anything sound scary if we want. Look at the Rangers last year. They went to the World Series with 1) a legit ace, 2) a 30-year-old that a) led the AL in walks, and b) was in his first season as a starter, 3) a cast-off in his first year back from Japan, and 4) Tommy freaking Hunter. The 2007 Rockies had pre-surgery Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, rookie Ubaldo, and JOSH FOGG. Those are just two examples of recent patchwork rotations that got to the Fall Classic, but you probably already picked up on the fact that both those clubs lost the World Series to teams with superior pitching.

The Yankees have a pretty big lead in the wildcard race (eight games in the loss column) plus a light schedule over the next month or so, so they’re in good position to make the playoffs. Nothing is guaranteed, but they’ve got a great head start with about 38% of the season left to play. They don’t need to add a starter to have a shot at playing in October, that much is pretty clear. Adding a number two guy behind Sabathia and ahead of everyone else is about improving their odds in the postseason. Anything can happen in a short series, like Jeff Francis out-pitching Beast Mode Brandon Webb or Cody Ross taking Roy Halladay deep twice in one game, That’s the beauty of baseball. The Yankees don’t need another starter, but it sure would improve their chances of doing damage in the playoffs if they got one.

Scouting The Trade Market: LOOGY’s

The Yankees’ perpetual search for a reliable left-handed reliever continues right before the trade deadline despite the millions and millions of dollars they’ve poured into players they thought were the solution. Part of the problem is that they’re chasing a unicorn, consistent and reliable relief specialists just don’t exist. By nature, their job is a small sample, and weird stuff can happen in small samples. Relievers are volatile, it’s just the way it is.

But still, that won’t stop them from scouring the trade market for a LOOGY before Sunday’s deadline. George King wrote today that the Orioles and Cubs had scouts at Yankee Stadium for last night’s game, fueling speculation about interest in Mike Gonzalez and John Grabow. This doesn’t pass the sniff test though, it seems very unlikely that the Yankees (or any team) would give up someone off their big league roster for those two relievers. Let’s explore them anything just because they’re very much available and appear to fill a need. King throws the names of Will Ohman and Randy Choate into the ring as well, so let’s tackle them too…

Randy Choate, Marlins

Another lefty batters meets his demise.

Here’s the guy the Yankees needed to sign this past offseason, not Pedro Feliciano. Even if Feliciano didn’t get hurt and was able to pitch this year, Choate is still straight up better. He’s faced 62 left-handed batters this year and ten have reached base. Seven have gotten hits (just two extra-base hits, both doubles), two have walked, and one was hit by a pitch. That works out to a .121/.164/.155 batting line, and he also has 23 strikeouts and a 64.7% ground ball rate against same-side hitters. It’s not a total fluke, Choate’s been doing this since he resurfaced in 2009. Because he’s signed through next year for dirt cheap (two-year deal worth $2.5M total), the Marlins aren’t desperate to give him away. It’ll take a decent prospect to pry Choate from Florida.

Mike Gonzalez, Orioles

The Orioles’ fail at a lot of things, but giving Gonzalez two years and $12M was as bad as decisions get. He was hurt and ineffective last year, though at least this season he’s provided some value as a situational lefty. He’s held left-handed batters to a .229/.280/.357 batting line with 18 strikeouts and 51% ground balls in 75 plate appearances. The Yankees (or any team, really) could probably get him for next to nothing, just some salary relief and a Grade-C prospect, if that. It’s worth nothing that Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano are very close friends from their days with the Braves, so perhaps having a buddy around lightens Soriano up and helps him pitch better.

John Grabow, Cubs

Another ill-advised multi-year deal for a lefty reliever, Grabow is making $4.8M this season, the second year of his two-year, $7.5M deal. In return for that investment, the Cubbies have gotten a 6.00 ERA in 69 IP since the start of 2010. Grabow’s value comes as a pure LOOGY since he can’t get righties out. He’s held same-side hitters to a .238/.314/.365 batting line with just 11 strikeouts and 41.2% grounders in 71 plate appearances. He’s another guy the Yankees could probably acquire for little more than salary relief, but there’s a reason he’d come some cheap. He’s just not very good.

Will Oh(tobeleft-handed)man

Will Ohman, White Sox

The White Sox are a bad week away from blowing up the team, and Ohman is one of their few marketable pieces. He’s holding lefties to a .204/.283/.315 batting line with 20 strikeouts and 41.2% grounders in 61 plate appearances this year, but his contract is a bit of red flag. Ohman is making just $1.5M this year but is under contract for $2.5M next season as well. He’s not a rental, and although that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, it’s less than ideal. The Yankees have enough money tied up in lefties as it is, even with Kei Igawa and Damaso Marte coming off the books after the season.

Since I know people are going to ask, yes there’s also Matt Thornton. He’s been one of the game’s best relievers over the last few seasons regardless of handedness, and he’s managed to regain that form somewhat after an early season hiccup. Left-handers are hitting .302/.333/.377 off him this year, but they’ve had sub-.600 OPSes off him the last two years. Thornton is owed $5.5M in 2012 and 2013 before a $1M buyout of his $6M option for 2014 comes into play. He’s not young remember, that contract will take him through his age 37 season assuming the option is declined. It’s easy to forget that you’re not trading for 2008-2010 Matt Thornton, you’re trading for the 2011-2013 version.

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The Yankees still have J.C. Romero tucked away in Triple-A, and he’s performed well in limited action. He’s faced 13 lefties for Scranton and just two have reached base (a hit and a walk) against three strikeouts and eight ground outs (that means zero fly balls). Romero has been effective against lefties in recent years, in between DL stints that is. I’m kinda surprised they haven’t called him up yet just to see what they have before deciding to pull the trigger on a trade, but it’s entirely possible his stuff and command are awful and the numbers against lefties in Triple-A are the function of a small sample size. Either way, I expect their to be a new lefty reliever on the roster one week from today.

Derek Jeter claims his place atop the lineup

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

While Derek Jeter rehabbed his strained calf, a contingency of Yankees fans realized their greatest desire. For about three weeks Brett Gardner hit in the leadoff spot, and as expected he handled it with aplomb. In that span, from June 14th through July 3rd, Gardner came to the plate 70 times and hit .267/.362/.383, stealing seven bases and scoring 13 runs. His combination of on-base skills and speed made him a better fit as the leadoff hitter than Jeter, who had a .324 OBP and had stolen just seven bases in his 293 PA before getting hurt.

Alas, we all knew that Jeter would resume his duties as leadoff hitter once he returned from the disabled list. As Joe Girardi, king of tautology, is fond of saying, “he’s our leadoff hitter.” Every day, it seemed, people questioned why Gardner wasn’t hitting atop the lineup. The answer to that question was also tautological: he’s Derek Jeter. It became pretty clear that Jeter would own the role for the rest of the season if not beyond, OBP be damned.

For now, that’s not such a bad thing. Jeter went 0 for 4 on his first day back, but then he started to see some of the hits fall in on his way to 3,000. It seemed as though he slowed down after that, but that might just be perception. In reality he has come back with a fury since returning from the DL, going 23 for 71 with six doubles, a triple, and two homers — .324/.385/.521. In other words, he has, at least for the last three weeks, earned his spot atop the lineup.

In fact, things have gotten quite better since a slow April, during which Jeter hit .250/.311/.272. In 268 PA since then he has hit .282/.347/.402. That’s not quite up to par with Gardner’s .316/.394/.418 since the same date, but it certainly paints Jeter’s season in a better light. They’re leaving some base runners on the table, and they’re definitely losing a bit in the speed department, but having Jeter atop the order isn’t quite the abomination it’s been made out to be.

Just after Jeter’s recorded his 3,000th hit, Girardi went on to defend the captain. “Is he hitting .320 like he did in 2009? No, he’s not. But are you convinced that he can’t hit .320 in the second half?” He still has a while to go in the second half, but so far Jeter has answered the bell. At one point I might have answered yes, I’m convinced that he can’t hit .320 in the second half. A sample of just 78 PA shouldn’t sway my opinion, but I can’t help but think back to that old tautology. He’s Derek Jeter.

The Cavalry Is Comin’

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

We’re all getting anxious as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, but the Yankees are going to make a pair of pretty significant acquisitions before Sunday’s deadline. Later today they’re (likely) going to reinstate Eric Chavez to the active roster after 81 days on the disabled list with a bone bruise in his foot (and various setbacks). A day or two later, Rafael Soriano will join the bullpen after 73+ days on the shelf with an inflamed elbow ligament. No, neither fills the team’s biggest need (a legit #2 starter), but they’re definite upgrades to the roster.

Chavez tore the cover off the ball (.333/.391/.571) in six minor league rehab games last week (not that it means anything), and will presumably replace Brandon Laird on the roster. Expecting him to hit like he did before the injury (.303/.410/.424 with six walks and just three strikeouts) is probably unrealistic, but he gives the team a legit left-handed bat off the bench (sorry, Chris Dickerson) and if nothing else, figures to put together better at-bats than Laird or Ramiro Pena or even Eduardo Nunez. With Alex Rodriguez on the shelf for the next few weeks, Chavez’s presence will be even more helpful, though I wouldn’t recommend playing him everyday. Even just splitting time with Nunez improves the offense.

The bullpen has been surprisingly solid during Soriano’s (and Joba Chamberlain‘s) absence, but it’s not just because David Robertson has been the best reliever in the American League. Cory Wade has emerged as a legit seventh inning option and Hector Noesi has quietly morphed into a 2011 version of 2009 Al Aceves. Soriano will inevitably assume eighth inning duties once activated, and that’s probably what’s best for the team. That will allow Joe Girardi to be a bit more liberal with Robertson, using him to wiggle out of the jams in the seventh (or even sixth) inning while Soriano gets the easy job of starting an inning clean. That leaves Wade to fill in the gaps with Noesi and Luis Ayala around for whatever else has to be done. Bullpen chaining is great, Soriano’s not replacing Robertson, he’s replacing the last guy on the staff (Steve Garrison, I assume) and adding depth to the relief corps.

Now don’t get me wrong, Soriano was pretty bad before getting hurt. He walked eleven and struck out ten in 15 IP, giving up 15 hits and nine runs. Yesterday’s rehab game was the first time since Opening Day that he had a 1-2-3 inning. His velocity was reportedly back to 93-94 mph over the last two days, which we didn’t see much of earlier this season. I’m pretty confident in saying that his early season performance is not his true talent level. Soriano’s been performing at a high level for a number of years, the problem has just been staying on the field. Pitching to his career averages (3.29 FIP and 3.72 xFIP) is all I’m hoping for. That’s a damn valuable reliever.

Of course, the whole “staying on the field” thing is far from certain with these two. Chavez has been on the DL every year since 2006 and Soriano has still never gone three straight years without getting hurt. That’s life though, just because they aren’t guaranteed to stay healthy over the final 62 games of the season doesn’t mean they can’t be valuable. There is no bench help on the trade market that comes with a reasonable price (Ty Wigginton? hah), and you’re not going to find a potential shutdown reliever for anything less than a pretty good prospect. The Yankees are getting those two pieces back at zero cost* this week, and that’s two fewer things they have to worry about before 4pm ET on Sunday.

* That’s not 100% true, the Yankees will need to clear one 40-man roster to accommodate these two coming off the 60-day DL. I have to think Jeff Marquez is the first guy on the chopping block.

M’s get no help from rain, Yanks hand Seattle 16th straight loss

Felix Hernandez deserves better than this. Boy are these Mariners bad, like cover your eyes and hide the women and children bad. They had no business being on a big league field Monday night; the Yankees completely outplayed them in every facet of the game after the nearly two hour long rain delay. The result was a 10-3 win and Seattle’s 16th loss in a row. Yes, 16th.

Tex eyes.

An Unearned Rally

Umpires these days are pretty terrible, but there are few worse than Balkin’ Bob Davidson. He blew a call at first base in this game that didn’t directly lead to the loss for Seattle, but it certainly didn’t help. Russell Martin was on first base with one out after Adam Kennedy whiffed on his ground ball at third, then he broke for second on Andruw Jones‘ dinky little infield grounder. Justin Smoak fielded the ball and looked at second before turning around and flipping the ball to Jason Vargas as he covered first. Jones hustled and beat him to the bag by a fraction of a second, or at least Davidson thought so. The replays showed that Andruw was out, but instead the inning lived on.

Eduardo Nunez was the next batter and he singled, driving in Martin. Brett Gardner singled through the drawn-in infield one batter later to drive in Jones. Derek Jeter hit a ground ball to second but Dustin Ackley’s throw home a) was offline, and b) hit the bat in front of the plate and deflected away from catcher Miguel Olivo. Nunez would have scored anyway, but it was still pretty funny. Curtis Granderson then drove a ball to center for a sac fly, plating Gardner. Mark Teixeira singled through the left side to drive in Jeter. Robinson Cano finally ended the madness with a ground ball, but the inning should have been over much sooner. Kennedy has to make the play on Martin’s ground ball, and the play at first was blown. Fallacy of the pre-determined outcome, yadda yadda yadda, but the game was essentially over after four unearned runs scored in the inning (five total).

Freddy Sez: Quick Outs

For all the complaining about the Yankees’ offense, watching the Mariners’ offense is an eye-opening experience. I didn’t know lineups got that bad. These guys hack at everything and refuse to work the count and chase bad pitches and will do so until the game is over. Ackley is the only guy on the team with a plan at the plate that is capable of executing it right now. There’s one big leaguer in the lineup. One.

Freddy Garcia was junk-balling them to death and the Mariners played right along; 22 (!!!) of the 31 batters he faced saw three pitches or less. He did allow eight hits in 7.2 IP but a lot of that came after the game was blown open and he started pitching to the score. Don’t laugh, Freddy threw¬†a lot more fastballs and pounded the zone with the big lead in an effort to get quick outs, and it worked. I still don’t trust him against good offenses, but Garcia has already exceeded every possible expectation this year and keeps doing it every time out.

HOPE Week is always a great week.

Leftovers

That five-run fourth inning cemented the win, but the Yankees did start the inning with a 3-1 lead. Teixeira hit a two-run homer in the first inning, driving the ball into the second deck in left field after Granderson’s walk. You don’t see many balls hit there, it was quite a shot. Jeter also chipped in a homer, believe it or not, a solo shot the other way in the third. It was his fourth long ball of the season, and he now has many homers in the Bronx has he does in Texas. They tacked on another run in the sixth via a Gardner double and another Granderson sacrifice fly.

There was a lot of offense as you’d expect in a blowout win, so let’s recap … Jeter had two hits, the homer and a triple later in the game. Derek had 12 extra-base hits in 62 games before going on the disabled list, but he’s already got nine in his 17 games back. He’s hitting .324/.385/.521 since coming back. Maybe he isn’t dead yet after all. Grandy had a hit, a walk, and the two sac flies. Tex had a pair of hits including the homer. Nick Swisher singled and both Nunez and Gardner singled and doubled. Cano was the only one without a hit. For shame.

Jeter did his patented jump throw play in the second inning, but the replay showed that Kennedy was safe at first. Second time in two days the first base ump blew the call on the jump throw, but hey, I’m not complaining. Bob Davidson is just a terrible umpire.

Congrats to Steve Garrison for making his big league debut. He retired the last two batters of the game on a line out and a fly ball, which I’m sure felt good after seven years in the minors. Boone Logan also struck out the only two men he faced. The Yankees are 20 games over .500 for the first time all season.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the other stuff, and ESPN the updated standings.

Up Next

Hopefully it won’t rain Tuesday night for game two of the series, when Doug Fister gets the ball against CC Sabathia. RAB Tickets can get you to the Stadium if you’re interested in going.